Federalists and Democratic Republicans

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How did political parties between 1790 and 1840 contribute to national unity in the U.S.?

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Political parties contributed to the development of national unity in the United States between 1790 and 1840 mainly through what is known as the principle of legitimate opposition. After the American Revolution, the Constitutional democracy set up by the founding fathers had no precedent in historical governments. The people began to have a powerful voice in designating government authority, and political parties allowed people with fervent political principles to align themselves with likeminded individuals in opposition to others with differing viewpoints. Although the text of the Constitution did not specifically mention political parties, they grew rapidly out of the differences of opinion of the men in the process of forming the new government.

Not all of the founding fathers were in favor of political parties. George Washington, for instance, was vehemently opposed to them. He was concerned that the factionalism that they created would pose a significant threat to the unity of the country. The opposite, however, proved to be the case, as the two-party system provided a legitimate outlet for differing opinions.

The first presidential election that prominently featured two political parties in opposition to each other was the election of 1796. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, featured John Adams as the presidential candidate. This party was popular in the northeastern states of New England, and its followers were mainly merchants, creditors, and other participants in the growing commercial economy. In opposition to the Federalists were the Democratic-Republicans, led by presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson. This party drew its support mainly from wealthy tobacco growers in the south, as well as farmers and other segments of society. The Federalists believed in a strong federal administration, while the Democratic-Republicans were in favor of a decentralized government in which power resided mainly in the states.

The Federalists and John Adams narrowly won. The main point to be drawn from this example, though, is that the existence of the two parties allowed people with differing viewpoints to express themselves within a framework of legitimate opposition. This set a precedent for future elections in which political parties could express their opinions through organized platforms. The names and platforms of political parties underwent changes after the election of 1796, but the principle of legitimate opposition remained as a unifying factor in national government.

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Political parties had a role in the development of national unity between 1790–1840. There were political divisions in our country between 1790–1815. The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans had different views regarding the role of the federal government, the interpretation of the Constitution, and the countries with whom we should have closer relationships. President Washington saw these divisions forming, and he warned the American people about the dangers of political parties in his farewell speech to the country.

Between 1815–1824, there was very little political division in the country. The Federalist Party had disappeared, and the power of the federal government was growing. The American System was in place, helping American industries grow and develop. Our transportation system was improving, and new roads and new canals were being built. There was only one political party, which was the Democratic-Republican Party. This period was known as the Era of Good Feelings. The country was very unified during this time.

After 1824, there were more political divisions. Andrew Jackson felt he lost the election of 1824 as a result of a deal between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, which was called the Corrupt Bargain. This led to the creation of another political party. The Democratic-Republican Party was now called the Democratic Party and was led by Andrew Jackson. John Quincy Adams led the National Republican Party. The main differences between these political parties dealt with how much power the federal government should have and how much of a role the federal government should have in the economy. The Democrats crushed the National Republicans in the election of 1828. Eventually, the Whig Party formed and stood in opposition to the Democratic Party in the 1830s.

By the 1830s, sectional differences were beginning to cause significant divisions within the United States. The issues of slavery and the protective tariff were responsible for the growing split in the country. Most of the unity from the Era of Good Feelings had disappeared.

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The nature of political parties changed considerably during this period. In 1790 to the aftermath of the War of 1812, it is perhaps most accurate to say that the Federalists and the Republicans reflected the divisions that characterized American politics. Each party held a very different vision for the new nation. However, throughout this period, it could be said that parties contributed to sectional unity, as neither of the major parties of the period drew exclusively from the North or South. Shortly after the end of the period in question, however, the cross-sectional alliances that stitched together the major parties showed signs of stress.

The aftermath of the war saw a period of broad consensus that was reflected in the decline of the Federalists. Until the emergence of Andrew Jackson as a national political figure in 1824, party division was virtually nonexistent. Yet sectional tensions over the expansion of slavery, reflected in the debate over Missouri, were quite potent and dangerous. The election of 1824, which saw John Quincy Adams chosen president in the House of Representatives, essentially ushered in what historians call the "second party system." In the wake of this election, Jackson emerged, with Martin Van Buren close behind, as the leader of a Democratic Party that brought in many Southerners as well as Northerners, especially in Van Buren's New York. Jackson's appeal resonated with an expanding white electorate, and, some historians have argued, appealed to those disaffected by the economic changes (known as the market revolution) that characterized the period. Jackson's position on the bank was especially popular among these people.

During the late 1820s into the 30s, the parties reflected a fundamental disagreement over the role of government in economic expansion as well as a host of other issues. By 1836, the Whig Party had emerged as a coalition of politicians who disapproved of Jackson's actions against the National Bank as well as a host of other actions. By 1840, they won the White House with William Henry Harrison (though he quickly died and was replaced by John Tyler, whose actions were decidedly anti-Whig). By this point, sectional tensions began to pull at the parties even as they coalesced into something like the disciplined organizations they are today. 

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